By MARY SELL and CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The Alabama Legislature gaveled in Tuesday for the first day of what leadership hopes are productive early weeks of the session, despite COVID-19 protocols that are changing operations in the State House.
One House member was sent home after testing positive for COVID-19 after representatives were encouraged but not required to take a rapid virus test upon entering the State House. The member was not identified by leadership. One staff member who had come into contact with the lawmaker was also sent home to quarantine.
House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, said despite the positive test, he is encouraged by the cooperation and attitudes of members.
“We’ve just got to learn to function in a little different environment and we’ve just got to be willing to take on all the safety precautions,” McCutcheon said.
A total of 92 of the 105 House members reported present on the first day back with some spread out in the House chamber, the House gallery and two overflow rooms. In the Senate, 30 of the 35 were present when the session started.
McCutcheon thanked members for choosing to come back to work despite the health risks it poses. Several lawmakers have had the coronavirus since last spring, some becoming seriously ill.
Members of the public are encouraged not to come to the State House unless they have an appointment with a lawmaker.
Rep. Andrew Sorrell, R-Muscle Shoals, told Alabama Daily News his No. 1 concern right now is making sure the public has the access needed to understand what the Legislature is enacting.
“It is very, very eerie without the public in the State House,” Sorrell said. “I really hope that we make it as easy as we possibly can while still being safe for the public and lobbyists and I’m going to try to be very responsive to my email and phone for my constituents.”
Because of concerns that COVID-19 could derail the session as it did in 2020, lawmakers aren’t expected to waste time in the first two weeks of the session, moving fast on several key pieces of legislation.
On Tuesday, House Ways and Means Education Committee chairman Rep. Bill Poole, R-Tuscaloosa, held a work session on two high-profile bills: one revamping major economic incentives offered in industrial recruitment projects and the other specifying that federal COVID-19 relief funds received by individuals, businesses or organizations are not subject to state income tax.
The COVID tax bill also reduces Alabama’s corporate income tax rate and eliminates the federal income tax deduction for businesses. Bill sponsor Rep. Danny Garrett, R-Trussville, said the bill will make Alabama more competitive with surrounding states.
He described it as a reallocation of tax burdens and a reduction for businesses, but also a plus for the education budget.
According to a fiscal note on the bill, it would increase income tax receipts to the Education Trust Fund by about $12.95 million this year and about $12.75 million for each fiscal year thereafter.
Both the bills will be in committee Wednesday. There is a public hearing on the incentives legislation. Poole on Tuesday asked his committee for patience and flexibility in scheduling. His is one of several committees jockeying for limited space to meet in rooms that allow live streaming.
“We’re building this airplane as we’re flying,” Poole said.
The Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday morning will take up Sen. Arthur Orr’s bill to limit the COVID-19-related lawsuits that can be filed against businesses and other entities. A public hearing is scheduled. Also, Sen. Tim Melson’s, R-Florence, bill to allow for medical marijuana will be considered.
A possible fast track for gambling
Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said Tuesday he is preparing wide ranging gambling legislation that will address a state lottery, casinos and sports betting. Revenues would go toward education, college scholarships and expanding access to broadband internet, among other things, he said.
Marsh intends to introduce the bill soon and wants to have votes in the House and Senate sooner rather than later.
“I think things have changed,” Marsh said. “Based on the polling data I’ve seen, the people of Alabama want to address this issue.”
He said any proposal that passes the Legislature would go before the people in the form of a constitutional amendment.
“I’ll tell you this: it’s going to be earlier in the session,” Marsh said. “But at the end of the day it goes to people for them to make that final decision.”
Budget estimates solid, ‘not out of woods’
Gov. Kay Ivey’s two budget proposals are expected to be sent to lawmakers on Wednesday. Revenue estimates in the 2022 General Fund and Education Trust Fund are expected to be up just slightly over the current year, lawmakers were told during budget hearings Tuesday morning.
Still, the House and Senate expected to proceed with caution as they plan spending that will begin Oct. 1.
“We’re not out of the woods yet,” Senate General Fund budget committee chairman Greg Albritton, R-Range, said.
While 2020 revenues were up over 2019, most of that growth happened in the first six months of the year, pre-pandemic. And so far in 2021, General Fund revenues are nearly flat.
State Finance Director Kelly said Ivey’s proposed General Fund budget will include increases for the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles and the departments of mental health and corrections. In the education budget, more money for pre-K and teacher supplies are some of the expected increases.
The current General Fund budget is $2.39 billion; the education budget is $7.2 billion.
Last week, Ivey told Alabama Daily News she’d ask for 2% raises for state employees and educators.
Kirk Fulford, deputy director of the Legislative Service Agency’s fiscal division, said both budgets are expected to start 2022 with leftover funds from 2021, largely because of lawmaker’s careful spending in the current year. Sen. Clyde Chambliss, R-Prattville, indicated continued wariness in spending.
“We can’t look now and say things are good,” he said. “We have to look two, three years down the road.”
Fulford acknowledged that if COVID-19 caused further business closures or layoffs, revenue estimates for 2022 will be “a different conversation.
Alabama Daily News reporter Todd Stacy contributed to this report.